By: Matthew Savage and Dr Helen Wright
#betterboards perform a vital function when exam results are released. In this article, Matthew Savage and Dr Helen Wright explain how international school boards can get this right.
Schools across the Middle East proclaim the premium they place on wellbeing above all else. For example, one group of schools proudly aims to provide “as much emphasis on the emotional, social, moral and physical development of our students as on the academic”, and KHDA itself seeks “to create a high-quality education sector focused on happiness and wellbeing”. It is hard to disagree with this; after all, if a student does not feel happy, safe and well, how can they learn effectively?
However, as we begin another academic year, leadership teams across the region will be busily preparing to report to their Boards on the academic performance of their students in the Summer 2021 series of public examinations. This is a challenging time for schools, as they seek to demonstrate their success with metrics capable of withstanding the scrutiny of the most exacting eye. But how many of these reports will reflect the #wellbeingfirst agenda enshrined in the Guiding Statements to which their schools increasingly subscribe?
As part of the training the two of us provide to international school boards worldwide, we directly address the dissonance at the heart of this process. It is perfectly possible, after all, for a Board to hold their school, and its leadership, firmly accountable, and to maintain maximum stretch and challenge in terms of the school’s performance, without compromising on the prioritisation of what really matters. Schools will measure and report whatever metrics are expected of them, so the Board needs to be bold and brave, and root their expectations in holistic, compassionate soil.
Ever since the introduction of school league tables in England and Wales in 1992, schools have been compared against each other with a ferociousness that has often become existential; schools have risen and fallen, or disappeared completely, on the strength of the raw attainment of their students, regardless of the multiplicity of complex factors which feed final academic outcomes. However, in the international schools’ sector, there is typically more freedom for a school to measure and report what it deems to be most important – or, rather, what its Board deems important to measure and report.
So maybe this year, after one of the most disrupted and difficult years our schools have ever encountered, we can approach this process differently. Maybe we can level the playing field, change the lens and do things better; but schools cannot do this without the full support of their Boards. Here is some advice for your Board to consider, as they play their part in the shifting paradigms emerging from the pandemic.
- Firstly, don’t panic, despite all the debris being bandied about, aim to find out the facts, instead. Remember that, in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake and the lost schooling that followed, outcomes did not suffer; so just because there is talk of a ‘learning gap’ in the media and in government does not mean that this learning gap is real.
- Discuss and agree with your Principal and their Senior Leadership Team what metrics best measure the success of your particular school. Try to think beyond raw examination grades, and delve instead, into individual achievement and progress, student attitudes and teacher perceptions, and, of course…
- …WELLBEING! There are powerful ways in which a school can measure and monitor student (and staff) wellbeing, in order to flag and inform specific interventions. It is common for a school to believe that their staff and students are experiencing positive wellbeing and mental health, but how do you know? What evidence do you need?
- Don’t forget to focus on students still in the midst of their schooling. If we only focus on students who have already graduated, we are leaving things too late, so ask for data on those in the middle of their courses, and find out how the school intends to respond to this invaluable information.
- This is the time to ensure your school’s approach to data and assessment really works. The use of data in schools is advancing all the time; is your school keeping up, or do you need to invest time and money to enhance the process?
- And, finally, build and sustain mutual trust with your SLT. In this way, they will be honest with you, and feel safe telling you what you need to know, rather than falling into the trap of saying what you want to hear and trying to impress you.
In our experience, at this important time of year, #betterboards ask for less but better and ensure that the metrics provided actually measure what really matters. Your Guiding Statements are your lifeblood, your DNA and your beacon; your data should show to what extent they have been brought to life.